Friday, January 29, 2016

Wicked DMC

"Planning problems are inherently wicked." 
Horst Rittel & Melvin Webber,
"Dilemmas of a General Theory of Planning"

Click-bait and switch

Admittedly, calling DMC “wicked” might be a bit of click-baiting. Even so, when the term is understood not as some sort of moral opprobrium, but referring to a certain type of problem, “wicked” is aptly used to characterize DMC and all it has come to mean.

Dating back to the late 1960’s, the notion of a “wicked problem” was first formally offered up in 1973 by Horst Rittel, a professor in design science, and Melvin Webber, a professor in city planning. They were describing a class of problems that do not lend themselves to the “scientific” approaches broadly favored at the time. Approaches still much in favor in most places today.

This “scientific” approach to problem-solving takes for granted that we can first come to a shared understanding of what the problem is and determine its causes and effects. Based upon this shared understanding, we can enumerate a list of possible ways the problem might be solved. From this list of possible solutions, we can select the one that best addresses the causes of the problem to reduce, manage, or eliminate its harmful effects. Implementing that solution, we can monitor the results and adjust accordingly as indicated.

Funny story: turns out that the scientific approach doesn’t work for problems that aren’t scientific: policy problems, planning problems, social, economic, business, and political problems. And, it turns out, even scientific problems that cannot be addressed without planning that depends upon social, economic, business, or political policy. The scientific approach to problems is still great and powerful and all that, but only as far as it goes - which isn’t any further than the hook just outside the laboratory door where scientists hang their lab coats.

You can't get there from here.

In the laboratory, parsimony and consensus are virtues valued and revered by the scientific community. Problems are shaved with Ockham’s Razor until they are as smooth and innocent as a baby’s bum. The point is to reach an agreement - at least for now - that when you do A you get B.

Not so much with wicked problems. Wicked problems are persistently complex and conflict prone. You cannot get to B from A because you can't find A and no one agrees that B is what comes next anyway.

With a wicked problem people usually do not (and may never) agree on just what (or even whether) the problem is. Solutions to wicked problems are not good or bad, but better or worse. Any attempt to solve a wicked problem results in changing what the problem is and uncovers other problems for which the problem you thought you were solving was just a symptom. Discussions of wicked problems often degenerate into a long recital of what about this and what about that and what about them and who the hell are you.

Wicked problems aren’t just big - though they usually are. They aren’t just complex - though they always are,. Wicked problems are so big that no one perspective can encompass them. Wicked problems are so complex that no one point of view can comprehend them. Wicked problems are wicked because they require these multiple perspectives and points of view to survey their size and gauge their shape. They remain wicked because their size and shape change even as they are surveyed and gauged, often even because they are being gauged and surveyed.

If that sounds confusing, it is. Wicked problems resist the concise and eat clarity’s lunch.

Never has the wickedness of DMC been made more clear than in the following snippet from the recent DMCC board meeting. Trying to frame the consideration of a request coming before the DMCC board, Patrick Seeb, the DMC EDA director of planning and placemaking said*:
Our to ensure that each individual project works as hard to achieve and advance the vision of the DMC plan. Additionally we are trying to create synergy between projects that don't necessarily align with each other in terms of time or pace and do not necessarily even know about each other.... Also what is the relationship between...this project and other proposed projects... That's really the work we have been doing with this project and connecting it with the other projects that are happening simultaneously - or not quite simultaneously that's really the issue. They are happening not in exactly the same time sequence. 
First, appreciate that the transcription of Seeb’s comments above has been edited. Some details left out. So it's even more complicated. Also, this request before the DMCC board speaks only to one proposed project in a sub-district not deemed a current DMC planning priority in a location that doesn’t care what DMC’s current planning priorities are. What emerges in the subsequent discussion is the reminder that the existing complexities of putting up any building in the city are now compounded by the interests of a big idea and the intentions of a grand design that are in turn confounded by the existing complexities of putting up any building in the city.

“With that I believe I'll turn it over to you, Mr. Council President.”

As Rittel and Webber observed forty years ago, “Planning problems are inherently wicked.” Forty years later, Philippe Vandenbroeck of the Belgian strategy consultancy shiftN adds this bit of advice:
Power remains a contentious issue in dealing with wicked problems. For innovators it’s an obvious nuisance. If only the regime, the powers-that-be weren’t there, it would be much easier to pilot a transition! However, those wanting to depart from the status quo need to recognise that change and friction go together. When those ‘in charge’ are not prodded by innovators, they become complacent and absorbed in day-to-day problem solving and negotiations. However, change agents also need the powers that favour the existing state of affairs. If not they become a victim of their own fantasies and imaginations. The question, therefore, is not how to do away with or circumvent power, but how to productively make use of the tension between conservation and change.
"The paradoxical task," says Vandenbroeck, "…is to force 'radical change in incremental steps'".

Good advice. Especially when all such DMC EDA statements will implicitly conclude as Seeb’s did above: “With that I believe I'll turn it over to you, Mr. Council President.”


* video time stamp 02:05:25

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